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For the state Republican Party, the troubling thing about Roy Cooper is that, well, he’s popular. In the most recent poll, he’s at 46 percent approval, with only 26 percent disapproving [ABC 11]. His exceedingly safe, uber-centrist form of Democratic politics doesn’t polarize people the way that, say, the General Assembly’s merry band of ideologues does. So, with elections forthcoming and the GOP’s supermajorities in question, Republican leaders want to take Cooper down a peg. And that’s what yesterday was all about: ginning up a scandal to knock that halo off Cooper’s head.

  • Here’s what happened: On Wednesday, the leader of the right-wing Civitas Institute filed a complaint with the state’s ethics commission over whether Cooper had accepted an illegal gift by accepting $58 million from the developers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline for a mitigation fund [N&O]. Coincidentally, GOP House and Senate leaders then immediately demanded that Cooper recuse himself from weighing in on the class-size bill they just passed—which also diverts the money from that fund to schools along the ACP’s path and reestablishes a bipartisan elections board—because there’s been an ethics complaint [N&O]. That, friends, is what we call a coordinated attack.
  • Cooper gave in, announcing that he’ll let the bill become law without his signature but also defending the mitigation fund and castigating the legislature for inserting poison pills into vital legislation.
  • “Cooper said he would allow the bill to become law without his signature because of the need to provide the class-size fix and to expand funding for pre-K. He called the rest of the bill ‘political attacks and power grabs.’ ‘The good parts of this bill are not a celebration,’ Cooper said at a press conference at the Executive Mansion. ‘They are just a sigh of relief. A sigh of relief that came too late, but we’re glad it’s here. Clearly, clearly the legislature has heard our voices.’”
  • N&O: “‘The legislators manufactured a power struggle about a pipeline that they said they wanted,’ Cooper said at a press conference at the executive mansion. ‘They raided the money that was supposed to improve the economy and bring jobs and lessen the environmental impact for the very communities that are affected.’ Cooper said that the pipeline fund would have strong conflict of interest provisions. He said qualified independent experts will determine how the money is spent for environmental mitigation and economic development. … Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger said Cooper’s decision to let the bill go into law without his signature confirmed that the governor has a clear conflict of interest. ‘It’s clear he got his hand caught in the cookie jar and he’s doing everything he can to twist and turn and come up with an explanation that he hopes will stick,’ Berger said told reporters after Cooper’s press conference.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Cooper’s right that this is a manufactured power struggle, as the legislature has manufactured so many power struggles since Cooper’s election. I’ve said before that Cooper’s team has botched this thing, like they weren’t prepared for the GOP to play dirty. It strains credulity that, as Cooper says, this payment was completely disconnected from the permitting process; but also, setting up this type of mitigation fund and forcing concessions from multibillion-dollar corporations who want to run an potentially environmentally damaging pipeline through eastern North Carolina is just smart policy. There’s zero evidence I’ve seen that Cooper actually intended it as a slush fund to help his political cronies, as the GOP alleges. Cooper’s mistake, I think, is that he’s not tying that payment to the permit. It’s totally reasonable to demand that large corporations pay for potential externalities for something that will make them a ton of money. Personally, I would have preferred that the state deny the permit and shut this project down. But if it has to go through, it’s best to take precautions. And now, the state will have none.